Saints for our Times: St. Nicholas of Myra ministered to those on the streets
By Mary Lou Gibson
Tolentino, Italy, is a picturesque town of about 20,000 people located in the province of Macerata in central Italy. It is a popular tourist destination because of the basilica dedicated to one of its own, St. Nicholas. He was the answer to his parents’ prayers when they made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Nicholas of Myra in 1244. After their son was born in 1245, they named him Nicholas and dedicated their son to him in gratitude.
Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that he joined the Austin Friars in Castel Sant’ Angelo and was professed shortly before he turned 18. During his years of study at the monastery, it was his duty to distribute bread to the poor. He did this with so much enthusiasm that the prior accused him of squandering the community’s resources.
Nicholas went on to join the Augustinians after he heard a friar preaching on the text: “Love not the world, nor the things which are in the world ... The world passeth away ...”
It was while he was at prayer one day in the monastery near Fermo that he heard a voice calling to him and telling him “To Tolentino, to Tolentino. Persevere there.” Tom Cowan writes in “The Way of the Saints” that the 13th century was a time of much chaos in Tolentino. The area was wracked by civil war created by the feud between the Guelphs, who supported the pope, and the Ghibellines, who supported the Holy Roman Emperor, in their struggle for control of Italy.
When Nicholas arrived in Tolentino, he saw a community that was in a horrific state of disorder. Editor Bernard Banley writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that immorality was rampant and religion had become fragmented and diluted with paganism.
Nicholas saw that he would have to go directly to the people who were in pain –– the homeless, poor, dispossessed, sick and dying. He began a campaign of street preaching, seeking out the “street people” and bringing them much relief with his kindness, gentleness and unfailing good spirits.
Nicholas spent the next 30 years in his ministry in Tolentino working with the poor and reminding the rich of their social obligations. Burns writes that his preaching was so effective that it was seen as miraculous. He also gained a reputation as a healer and a peacemaker between enemies.
There are many miracle stores about Nicholas. Richard McBrien writing in “Lives of the Saints” describes one of these as the custom of blessing and distributing bread on Augustine’s feast day (Aug. 28). It happened that Nicholas was ill with a chronic illness when he was said to have had a vision of the Blessed Virgin. She told him that he would recover if he asked for a small piece of bread, dipped it in water and ate it. He did recover and afterwards he did this for all the sick he visited.
Another miracle story relates how a small group of passengers were on a ship sinking at sea. They asked for Nicholas’ aid and he appeared in the sky, wearing the black Augustinian habit, radiating golden light and holding a lily in his left hand; with his right hand, he quelled the storm.
Nicholas died on Sept. 10, 1305, after a year-long illness. He was canonized by Pope Eugene IV (also an Augustinian) in 1446. Burns explains that his canonization process was interrupted when the papacy moved to Avignon. He was the first Augustinian to be canonized and was credited with 300 miracles.
He is the patron of sick animals, mariners, babies, mothers and the dying. He was proclaimed patron of souls in Purgatory in 1884 by Pope Leo XIII. In many Augustinian churches, there are weekly devotions to St. Nicholas on behalf of suffering souls.
His remains are preserved at the Shrine of St. Nicholas in the basilica di San Nicola da Tolentino in the city of Tolentino, Italy. He is recognized as a saint of the Roman Catholic Church although his Sept. 10 feast day is not on the General Roman Calendar. More than 40 saints are named Nicholas.